David L. Marcus ’82 is schooled by Dana Goldstein ’06, author of The Teacher Wars: A History of America's Most Embattled Profession.
Courtesy Dana Goldstein
Your book made me see that the Common Core is just the latest effort to impose rigor. What do you like about the Common Core?
There is so much I like about it, especially the emphasis on rigorous
reading across the curriculum and on thesis-driven writing backed by
evidence. Those are the skills students need to be successful in
DM What don’t you like about it?
DG Where I'm more
skeptical is the high-stakes standardized testing tied to the Common
Core. These tests will be used to evaluate teachers and sometimes to
shut down schools. And yet, when we look at the early versions of these
exams, many of them are low-quality multiple-choice tests like the old
tests they were supposed to improve upon, being created by the same old
for-profit testing companies that are responsible for the low-quality
exams tied to No Child Left Behind.
DM If you could advise school districts around the country and
know they'd listen to you, what three things would you have them do to
truly improve schools?
DG This is a tough question, which is why I end the book with
eleven policy suggestions! We're always looking for a silver bullet in
our education debate, and the truth is, there isn't one. Schools are
complex organizations embedded within communities and political
systems. So improving them is complex too.
DM What are the most pressing reforms you’d suggest?
DG One is revamping the school day so that teachers spend a
little bit less time in front of students and more time collaborating
with one another to create effective lesson plans and share best
practices. We know many of our competitor school systems around the
world have built much more collaborative professional cultures for
teachers than we have here in the United States.
Secondly, principals matter as much as teachers. When top teachers are
surveyed on what would inspire them to stay in the profession or move
to a needier school, they answer that a respected, effective principal
is the key draw. Principals must be proven instructional leaders, not
Third, racial and socioeconomic integration is associated with better
academic outcomes. We need to do everything we can to reduce the number
of schools that are segregated—where over 90 percent of the students
are living in poverty. I've written a lot about how both housing and
education policy can be employed to do this, without reigniting the
busing wars of the 1970s.
DM On balance, do teacher unions make education better or hinder progress?
DG My book is a work of history, so let's look at the historical
record. States with collective bargaining for teachers have larger
education budgets, higher teacher pay, and higher student achievement.
Teachers unions have long advocated for policies, like public pre-K,
that truly benefit children and families.
DM But you’re not entirely sold on unions today?
DG I am frank in the book about which union protections I
believe are outdated. I reject the idea that we can't distinguish
between good and bad teaching, so I don't support "last in, first out"
layoff policies that protect experienced teachers even if their
performance is worse than that of younger teachers. Seniority should be
a tiebreaker, not the only factor. We also need to look closely at
teacher tenure. I believe in due-process rights for teachers and other
workers, but in practice it has to be reasonably affordable and fast to
remove an ineffective teacher from the classroom.
DM When I visit private schools, I often see innovation:
teamwork, portfolios, classes held at museums, independent projects for
seniors. When I visit public schools, I increasingly see test prep—for
tests that apparently don't prepare kids for today’s jobs. Thoughts?
DG There are certainly public schools, even in high-poverty
neighborhoods, that use all those strategies. I've visited some of them
as a journalist. However, you're right to note the gap between what
affluent parents choose for their own children and the dominant reforms
policymakers have pushed on our public schools over the last several
decades. Here's one hopeful finding from education research: Children
whose teachers spend less time on standardized test prep and more time
on high-level, conceptual, creative instruction, actually perform
better on end-of-year standardized tests than those children whose
teachers devoted a lot of time to drilling for those tests.
Standardized test prep is not only stultifying, it's also completely
David L. Marcus is author of Acceptance: A Legendary Guidance Counselor Helps Seven Kids Find the Right Colleges—And Find Themselves.